Thomas Jefferson still looms over visitors to his temple on the Tidal Basin, but more than 200 miles away, everybody’s clamoring to see him as the outrageous villain in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, “Hamilton.”
Oh, we’re on to randy old Tom now. We know his soaring lines in the Declaration of Independence are smudged by the sweat of hundreds of slaves. We know the Father of our country was also the father of several children by a woman he owned named Sally Hemings.
We’re a young nation, and like any adolescent, nothing rouses us to fits of bitter delight more than detecting hypocrisy in others. Twenty years ago, Atlantic magazine confidently declared that Jefferson’s hallowed status was already crashing. “Jefferson is a patron saint far more suitable to white supremacists than to modern American liberals,” wrote Conor Cruise O’Brien. But the host of Monticello may prove more tenacious than his critics are willing to admit. After all, today’s assaults are no worse (or more deserved) than what Jefferson endured during his presidency. Centuries before Trump and Cruz began hurling insults at each other about intimate matters, no less a statesman than John Quincy Adams mocked Jefferson and “dusky Sally” in a crude poem.
Even while weathering these assaults, old and new, Jefferson has become the subject of increasingly nuanced research by scholars capable of acknowledging the man in all of his fascinating, maddening complexity. Next week, Annette Gordon-Reed, who already has brought such compelling erudition to bear on the Jefferson-Hemings debate, will publish another book that deals with this issue with exceptional clarity and moral breadth. “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” co-written with historian Peter S. Onuf, presents Jefferson as a man who “lived a paradox”: He was one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia, who nevertheless condemned slavery in the harshest terms; he was a revolutionary in the cause of liberty, who, when it came to human chattel, “declined to be an active agent for change.” He was, Gordon-Reed and Onuf conclude, a man with “the capacity we all have to tell stories about ourselves that obscure, elide, and overlook unpleasant truths.”
Into that cloudy realm, creative writers, too, have boldly flown. At least since Barbara Chase-Riboud’s first novel, “Sally Hemings,” published in 1979, novelists, playwrights and poets have corroded Jefferson’s golden mythos by forcing us to acknowledge his exploitative relationship with a woman who had no legal recourse to refuse him. My own understanding of Hemings’s life is indelibly imprinted by seeing Robbie McCauley perform “Sally’s Rape” some 25 years ago.
And now comes the most revolutionary reimagining of Jefferson’s life ever: a colossal postmodern novel that’s often baffling, possibly offensive and frequently bizarre. In fact, its prognosis for popular success is so bleak that it’s something of a miracle it made it into print. But what a dazzling experience this book is for the intrepid reader. “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” is no mere retelling of the scandal at Monticello or Hemings’s secret life or Jefferson’s service in Paris and Washington — although it certainly throws all that into its furnace. Stephen O’Connor, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, has engineered a Rube Goldberg machine of literary gadgets that shouldn’t work at all but somehow works wonders.
Through one strain of the novel runs the story of Jefferson’s life, from his lonely childhood to his famous death, told with the close, psychologically astute detail of an omniscient, third-person narrator. We see the dark, introverted thinker, thoroughly conscious of his history-changing mission to ignite the flames of freedom and keep them burning. But that traditional narrative is syncopated with a host of other voices, perspectives and forms that constantly disturb our understanding of this man who is drawn — inexorably and full of self-loathing — to a much younger black woman he owns.
Early in the novel, there’s a perfectly captured vignette of life at Monticello when Jefferson meets little Sally for the first time. He graciously insists on being called “Mr. Jefferson,” not “Master Jefferson,” but then the scene breaks off, and we turn to his rousing condemnation of slavery — “this infamous practice” — from “A Summary View of the Rights of British North America.” O’Connor repeats this strategy for hundreds of pages, and at first these ironic juxtapositions feel too easy — gotcha! — but as the weight of Jefferson’s festering moral failure accrues, we come to understand the tragedy of his life and the intricacy of his self-delusion.
Alongside inspirational lines from “Notes on the State of Virginia,” we read passages from the memoirs of some of his slaves. Damning excerpts from surviving letters and newspapers mingle with imagined scenes of Jefferson’s lust and shame. At other points, O’Connor dons the voice of a modern-day historian and dispassionately explains, say, the conditions of sex work in late 18th-century America. Short reflections on the subjective nature of colors also run through the story, implicitly deconstructing the specious principles of racism even as Jefferson clings to the peculiar institution that he claims to loathe.
If this sounds like a well-researched historical novel decorated with snippets of challenging historical documents, that’s only because I’ve held back — partly out of nervousness — the truly radical elements of O’Connor’s book. What really distinguishes “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” is its willingness to break any rules of context, history or convention. For instance, in one of the most amusing story lines stirred into this pot, James and Dolley Madison take Jefferson to see a Hollywood movie about him and Sally. The incongruity of this makes no more sense to us than it does to Jefferson, who’s baffled by the moving pictures, the disembodied music and especially the highly romanticized vision of his life.
And there are far more surreal story lines that involve Sally as a vast flying machine and another one of woodsmen wandering inside the body of Jefferson. In a comparatively grim series of episodes, we read the transcripts of Jefferson as he is interrogated in a place something like Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Elsewhere, Jefferson nervously eyes Sally on a modern-day subway car. Absurd-sounding in summary, these ahistorical and phantasmagoric scenes are remarkably effective at startling us from our Mount Rushmore image of the man.
And then there are those few times when we turn the page to read just one chilling line on an otherwise blank sheet: “I will make it good. . . . I will be gentle.” What is that? The voice of Jefferson as a sensitive lover? An avuncular rapist? Have we ever been drawn so close into the conflicted mind of our slaveholding philosopher-president?
But the most troubled and troubling chapters come from the fictional diary of Sally herself. It’s here that O’Connor dares to imagine both her hatred and affection for her famous owner. Under slavery, she writes, “one’s very desire to live a decent and ordinary life can be an unending source of humiliation.”
In this intimate, blazingly candid memoir, we see her repulsed by Jefferson, horrified by her position and outraged at his endless equivocations and deferrals. And yet, we also see her in love with the president and capable of considerable resistance to him. In O’Connor’s telling, she is a person with the emotional capacity to understand Jefferson’s tortured soul without excusing him for enslaving so many of the people who make Monticello possible. In a different way, she emerges just as conflicted as the man who owns her.
In the afterword, O’Connor says that he “came to believe that Hemings’s feelings for Jefferson might well have fallen somewhere along the spectrum between love and Stockholm syndrome.” He’s running awfully close here to the third rail of American history: If he makes Sally a willing participant in this relationship, he risks excusing the malignancy in our national mythology. But if he portrays Sally as a wholly powerless victim, he denies her ability to negotiate the contradictory forces at work in Jefferson’s delusional paradise.
As the master’s “substitute wife,” Sally must have exercised a degree of influence that other slaves at Monticello did not, and O’Connor has the temerity to imagine how an intelligent, trapped woman would have dealt, emotionally and strategically, with that horrible dilemma. That problematic characterization will not satisfy all readers — and will surely outrage some. But O’Connor’s deeply humane treatment of Sally, whose actual thoughts will never be known to us, is the novel’s most haunting accomplishment.
Ultimately, this is a book in vigorous debate with itself, just as strange and contradictory as the author of the Declaration of Independence. With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On April 16 at 6 p.m., Stephen O’Connor will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.
By Stephen O’Connor
Viking. 610 pp. $28